Readings: Isaiah 65:17-25 Luke 21:5-19
We pray; Loving God, we have listened to your word through scripture, help us now to discern your word for us in this time and place to your purpose and glory. Amen.
Do not be too prepared in your defence for what is to come; I will give you the words and the wisdom. So says Jesus as he warns his followers that they are in for a very hard time ahead. The destruction of the temple, wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues – and persecution and personal betrayal. Not a lot to look forward to, you might say.
As the Hebrew people of the time, we can imagine that they would have been familiar with the stories of their ancestors, where they lived through despair, of persecution, and great trials. The reading from Isaiah today, giving glimpse into the new heaven and the new earth, offers words of thanksgiving after a particularly testing time for the people of God – this scripture they would have known well, and maybe they drew some comfort from it.
But all the same they were horrified, scared, potentially going into shut down mode at this landslide of disaster facing them. Especially I imagine when it gets to family betrayal and death for their faith. And Jesus, seeing their very natural fearful reaction to his words, told them that this was not the time to raise the drawbridge and hunker down – in fact just the opposite.
Instead he tells them to have not fear, to in fact enter the fray with confidence because it is in this time of extreme vulnerability that you will have the chance to tell your story – and it will be such a convincing story that none will withstand it. I will be with you, I will give you the words of conviction that none can challenge. Do not be afraid. Do not be panicked by fear into doing the wrong thing.
He had said those words to them other times they had panicked: remember the time the disciples were battling the most horrendous sea and Jesus was asleep in the bow, and they awoke him sure they were going to drown. Then too he said– do not be afraid, I am with you, not a hair on your head will be harmed.
Time and time again the church has grappled with the sense of the end of time, of the world falling down around their ears – through wars and natural disasters and, let’s not forget, the church itself wandering off into institutional incompetence at best and inquisitions or crusades at our worst.
And our 21st century church – what are the things that feel apocalyptic in our time?
For we can say with certainty that we as church also feel seriously threatened today – we could be forgiven for thinking we best hunker down and see if we can ride out the storm of indifference, irrelevance, extremism that appears to beset us. And as for the catastrophe that the planet seems to be approaching at an increasing rate of knots, perhaps we should we simply lock the doors and walk away, too bowed down by fear and hopelessness to continue with any fortitude. Jesus would understand, surely!
Actually – no. Instead Jesus says to us also. ‘This will give you the opportunity to testify.’ And to testify from the heart – not with our prepared doctrines or our strategic plans, not with defensive rhetoric but instead leaving all that armour behind and stepping out in faithful vulnerability trusting that Jesus, the word, will be with us. That goes against just about every best practice that I hold dear. Be fully prepared, allow for plan b and c, try to anticipate what I will need to be, do and say. Well actually I should say everything I held dear when I came into ministry. That has changed. I know how it feels to step into a situation where distress and pain is rife, having no idea whatsoever of anything to say that won’t feel stupid or insensitive or shallow – and somehow, in the moment, God is there guiding and giving me the words that are needed. It’s happened too many times for me to doubt that in our unprepared vulnerability, God speaks or maybe it is that we allow God to speak.
In our world, how do we who have been relatively privileged, how do we respond to the suffering and pain of the world, to the threats of changing climate, increasing exploitation, extremism in God’s name. What does it mean to testify in times of great suffering and great hatred? Well it means courage. Courage in the face of fear. Hope when all seem hopeless. It means boldness to speak in the midst of suffering.
We in Aotearoa have had a sharp lesson in that this year past and we in the church even more so as we grappled with the hatred of the mosque shooting and its aftermath. But we also saw the love and compassion of people of faith, the challenge of the right words to speak into the horror, a new beginning of relationship and understanding.
The sometimes the sheer overwhelmedness of what is happening around us has the capacity to paralyse us, to cause us to give up, to retreat into our shells and yet Jesus is teaching us to make the most of this scary vulnerable time – our voice is needed and we must not be intimidated. We must trust that in our very powerlessness we are well qualified to speak with authority and wisdom – not ours but God’s. Our words bear witness to Christ’s unshakeable promise to walk with us in all that this world might throw at us to a new creation - remember the words of hope from Isaiah For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
We actually have someone in NZ at the moment who epitomises that boldness and courage in the face of crushing despair. Behrouz Boochani has been incarcerated on Manu Island for the last 6 years. A Kurdish/Iranian refugee, he left Iran afraid for his life only to be sent to the prison that is Australia’s answer to immigration pressures. He could have kept silent, waited and prayed. But he didn’t. He spoke out while he was there – sending texts and short video clips out to the world. When his phone was taken he somehow got an another and another, telling the story of the suffering and despair bit by tiny bit. He did not lie down and he did not keep quiet – he testified to the injustice and cruelty and he would not be quiet.
Hear the story of Behrouz, ‘Manus Island Psalm’ written by Candi Young and hear the pain and the perseverance of this remarkable man who would not be silenced. As I pray we will not be.
God, this is not our home, this place of blistering heat
suffocating us slowly with its dank humidity
night odours of sweat and foul breath
of decay, degeneration, degradation
strangling our hearts, our spirits.
The cold-steel eyes of the prison guards
the callous, careless arrogance of the Malaria nurses
God, this is not our home.
We survive during the day thanks to an old tree
spreading its branches, creating a canopy…
our tent in this alien wilderness.
This is not our home, but it is a refuge
from the oppression of this place
from ever-present surveillance
from nights clutching tightly to our nightmares
from being broken down slowly from without and within
…decay, degeneration, degradation.
God, this is not our home, this place of brokenness
of noise for the sake of noise. Our songs, our poetry
have no meaning here, our images are lost to us
they remain behind in the mountains buried in snow
in rivers and waterfalls drumming the ancient chants.
Our metaphors have no substance here in this barren place.
We would weep, God, if we were not sucked dry.
This is not our home…but that home, that place where we began
grew, soaked up our language and history, turned on us.
So God, teach us to negotiate this culture of oppression
help us to enter into this new landscape, find a language of exile
…help us to survive.
This is not our home, and yet it is our only home.
Jesus said: This too is required of you – in the midst of the world’s turmoil, to have the courage and the boldness to testify to a better way, to trust in the promise of the man who, from his birth, walked towards the cross in the vulnerability and changed the world forever. Amen.